Basslines of the Black Atlantic

[Thoughts on the Bristol Soundsytem Culture exhibition @ Colston Hall, Bristol]

When stripped back to its source, much of what emerges from Bristol musically has its origins in the Jamaican soundsystem. While many look to the 1980s as the decade when a distinctively Bristolian sound began to emerge, you have to look a generation back, to the era of West Indian migration and settlement in the UK in the 1950s and 60s, to find the seeds of a culture that has reverberated throughout the city’s musical landscape ever since.

Seeking a deeper insight into this period, I paid a visit to the Bristol Soundsystem Culture exhibition and installation at Colston Hall, which is an expansion of a project begun by historian Mandeep Samra to document the soundsystem culture of Huddersfield, West Yorkshire.


Primarily a photographic exhibition of some of the key soundsystem pioneers in the city, including the magnificently-named Tarzan the High Priest, the exhibition also pointed out the importance of shebeens or blues dances – afterhours parties held in people’s houses – in fostering a new way of experiencing music. In the centre of the room was a custom-built speaker stack and turntable, a reminder that the physicality of the bassline was and is central to the soundsystem experience.


While there was almost too much detail to take in, I was struck by the intimacy of the scene, as it emerged in the 1960s and 70s. The blues – which were concentrated in St Paul’s, Easton and Montpelier, were most Jamaicans had settled– functioned both as transmitters of Caribbean culture for recent migrants, but also as safe spaces for the black community, who faced hostility in city centres during a time when ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ posters could still be seen in windows. As the decades progressed, the soundsystem began to find its way into community halls, youth centres and some music venues, partly due to police crackdowns on blues parties.


The exhibition also pointed out a couple of historical ironies. I’ve heard Bristol described before as a ‘meeting point’ between the old and new worlds – a reference to the significance of the city’s port and its role in British colonial trade and slavery. I hadn’t realised that it was also a Bristolian, William Penn, a naval officer who commanded a fleet that was instrumental in the British seizure of Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655. 300 years later, lured by the promise of jobs in the health service, transport and construction, many West Indians would find themselves trying to establish an identity in the former colonial homeland.

This in turn got me thinking about how the soundsystem as a mode of communication was borne out of a form of alienation; out of the experience of being both a colonial subject and a third-world immigrant in the ‘motherland’. As I was looking at the photos, I eavesdropped on a Uruguayan music producer talking about how soundsystems could be seen to form part of postcolonial theorist Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic – a transnational culture forming in between the Americas, the Caribbean, and Europe. Expanding on this, I wondered what information could be contained within the bassline – the most critical aspect of reggae, dub and all subsequent musical mutations – that still resonates so powerfully with so many people? Could it be that soundsystems are transmitters of a particular code, represented sonically in bass frequencies, that contain all the emotions of the colonial/post-colonial encounter? Rage, frustration, injustice, liberation, emancipation all converted into movement energy by 18 inch speaker cones ?


The current roots/dub renaissance in Bristol – which features soundsystems such as Negus Melody, Masaai Warrior, Pappa Roots, Jah Lokko, Kibir La Amlak, Downbeat Melody and Lionpulse regularly filling out nights such as Teachings in Dub at the Trinity Centre and Bristol Dub Club at the Black Swan draws on a very rich, complex and deep-rooted history, which underpins much of the city’s musical identity, and also acts as a kind of template, a starting point, for newer sounds to experiment with and evolve from.

The Bristol Soundsystem Culture exhibition runs until 17 July.


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